June 25, 2010

What's New in the Garden

I had no idea when I decided to participate in the Kinder Gardens project how little I would actually have to contribute. It's not like the kids haven't been in the garden over the past month, but as far as having something concrete that I can report on, no dice. My daughter picked out a bunch of herbs so she could start a "Medicine Cat" garden (inspired by the Warriors series), but they're still sitting on the deck waiting to go into the ground.

I think the problem lies with the expectation that they were going to want to plan and carry out some kind of "project".  That's all well and good, but my love of gardening certainly didn't come from my mom forcing me to participate in the growing of our food, it developed naturally out of experiencing the benefits of having a large family garden.  Some of my fondest childhood memories are of long summer days spent stuffing myself with sun warmed raspberries, collecting piles of hazelnuts, and my dad using the bucket of a backhoe as a picking platform to to access the best fruits on our enormous cherry tree.

Freshly picked strawberries to top off our breakfast.

I guess what I'm trying to say is that I'm going to put away all of the cool, projecty ideas that I have floating around in my head for now and just let the kids enjoy the fruits of our collective (okay, mostly parental) labor.

As for my own garden plans, not having to share garden space means I can have as many projects on the go as I want! I've done things a little differently this year armed with information from Growing Vegetables West of the Cascades by Steve Solomon. I got this book out of the library earlier this year, hoping it would give me some ideas on how to improve our lousy soil, which it did. I have to say, however, that I almost didn't get to that point, as Solomon's tone in the first two thirds of the book is so negative and condescending that I almost threw it across the room several times. I did manage to stick it out until the end, and I'm so glad I did, because my garden is thriving this year. I ended up buying the book, because I think the information is vital to those of us on the west coast, and if Solomon is to be believed (and he must know a bit about gardening on the coast, as he's the founder of Territorial Seed) much of the core advice in other gardening books just doesn't apply to us here.

So, based on his advice, I limed the soil, added bone meal, manure and compost, and made raised beds. Against his advice, I did use our chicken litter to amend the soil (he's against using wood products in the garden, but our soil is so devoid of any organic matter that I figure it can handle it). We also made tunnel cloches using 1/2" pex pipe from the hardware store (a good deal at less than $2 each) and 6 mil plastic. According to the book, cloches are better suited to our climate than solar greenhouses, and they cost considerably less to build.

The frame of the cloche.

This bed was planted on May 24th, the earliest I've ever set out my tomato plants (notice the emerging potato hills to the left of the tomatoes). Based on this year's success, I may set them out even earlier next year.

Solomon uses 2x4's to hold down the edges of the plastic tunnels, but we tried making "clips" using 3/4" pipe on a friend's advice. It didn't work as well as we would have liked, but I suspect that's because we used a scrap of pipe that was a different brand than we'd used for the frame, so they would occasionally let go and fly at my head when I was least expecting it. Next year I will try making them again using the same brand of pipe. In the meantime, we're using a combination of rocks and 2x4's to hold down the edges.

Some of the best advice gained in the book was to let go of the notion of growing tomatoes that require longer than 75 days from transplant, as our summers are just too short and cool. Looking through my seeds, I noticed that many of my heritage tomato seeds from southern seed companies took 100 or more days to mature. That would explain my recent lack of success in the tomato department. The other problem was that the plants would often get chilled and quit growing for a few weeks after transplant, which the cloche prevented. 

Within three weeks, the tomato plants went from about 4 inches tall to well over 2 feet and flowering, so I removed the tunnel earlier this week and put up the tomato spirals:

We built another hoop house for the peppers, which are also flowering and happy. I'll leave this cloche in place for a while longer as peppers like a bit more heat than tomatoes, and are less tolerant of our cool summer nights.

The eggplants' shelter is a little more impromptu, but is working well. I lined the bed with black plastic to collect heat, and made a protective tent out of pipe ends and floating row cover.

It ain't pretty, but a peek underneath reveals happily growing plants:

The potatoes are now fully hilled and flowering. They're doing much better this year than last, when I got a return of about 1:1 (as a friend of mine said, I should have saved myself some time and put the seed potatoes right into the fridge!). I'm looking forward to harvesting a few babies soon and making a batch of lemony potatoes!

Elsewhere in the garden, the three-sisters plot is well on its way, the onions are fattening up, and the blueberry plants are covered in fruit.

It looks like the kids have some work ahead of them!

June 20, 2010

Poultry in Motion

I thought I'd share a couple of photos of the chicken tractor, which, thanks to a break in the weather, is finally finished. We made it out of scrap wood and cedar trim left over from the house construction, as well as bits of leftover fencing.

If you've never heard the term "chicken tractor", it's basically a moveable pen which gets pushed from place to place, allowing the chickens to trim, weed, and aerate your lawn or garden beds, fertilizing the soil along the way. It's beneficial for the soil, and keeps the chickens from getting bored. Curved wooden skids on the high side make it easier to move.

The girls explore their new pen while Chuck trims off the excess wire.

The tractor docks on the opposite side of the coop from the run, and will serve as an extra "room" when it's not being moved around the yard. It will also be handy as a broody pen should we decide to hatch our own chicks (the hardware cloth on the sides is 3/4 inch so babies can't squeeze out), or as a place to keep a sick or injured bird. We're going to make a removeable roof of some kind to cover one half of it, which will give them some shelter from the elements.

I can't wait to take this baby for a spin!

June 16, 2010

Our First Loss

I had hoped to post an update on the garden tonight, but the day had other plans. 

I went out to water the chickens this afternoon and noticed that one of our Speckled Sussex hens had something hanging out of her vent - a lot of something. I'm not exactly sure what happened, but I think she must have had a prolapsed oviduct (which can protrude through the vent opening) that ended up getting picked at by the other hens. The injury was so severe that I was pretty sure there wasn't much that could be done for her, but I moved her into a quiet pen in the basement while I did some quick research and tried to decide what to do. After doing some reading and speaking to some chicken-keeping friends, it became clear that she wasn't going to recover. Thankfully, fate stepped in and saved us from having to put her down ourselves, as she slipped away not too long after we brought her inside. Aside from the two Salmon Faverolles chicks that we lost at 6 days old, this is the first of our hens to die.

Freckle, 5 days old.

I'm thinking she must have had something wrong with her reproductive system from the beginning, as we would occasionally (a couple of times a month) get an egg that looked like it had been difficult to pass (bloody). Still, I was really sad to lose one of these birds, as the Speckled Sussex is quite possibly my favorite breed. They're friendly, adventurous, and hardy (even during a torrential downpour, there's usually at least one Sussex out wandering around in the rain). Thankfully, it wasn't the one who spent her first few weeks sleeping in the crook of my neck that died, but her sister "Freckle". I wasn't totally sure until I went out into the coop this evening and "Speckle" came running in to see me, squawking "criiiick, criiick, criiick" in her funny, raspy voice (the only way I could tell them apart as they matured).

We've had a hell of a month with our pets, and this is incident number three, so I'm hoping we're done now.

June 15, 2010

Bear With Me

Yay, I'm finally back online! A couple of days after my last post, the power cord for my laptop died, and it's taken almost a month to get a replacement. I was able to use my iPod and my son's computer to update my Facebook page occasionally, but Blogger didn't agree with my son's 10 year old hand-me-down Mac, so I wasn't able to post here.

There's a lot to tell you about, but I'll start with the most exciting news first. 

We almost lost our flock to a predator at the beginning of the month. Those of you following me on Facebook have already heard a bit about this, but now I can share photos.

We don't have a lot of things that prey on chickens here aside from hawks, eagles, and the occasional dog (we don't even have raccoons or skunks), but just over a month ago, a bear showed up in the area. Normally this wouldn't be much of a problem, but this particular bear has developed a taste for poultry and has raided more than half a dozen coops, despite the fact that it's prime Salmonberry season and there's no shortage of other things for him to eat at the moment.

I woke up one morning a couple of weeks ago and happened to glance out at the chicken coop and noticed that the window trim was torn off and laying on the ground.

After taking a closer look it became obvious that somebody with muddy paws was the culprit.

Notice how he tried the knob and the latch, but didn't touch the door anywhere else? This guy's a pro.

After a few minutes of panic and trying to decide whether it was safe to go out and check on them, I finally saw a couple of the hens hop up onto the window perch. Okay, so at least it wasn't a total loss.

I could hear that the neighbor's dog was out and not going ballistic, so I figured the bear was long gone, and I eventually mustered up enough courage to venture out for a better look. Closer inspection revealed that he also tried to gain access through one of the other windows, as well as the pop door which will eventually provide access to the chicken tractor. Thankfully the hardware cloth that we stapled over the windows and under the sheeting kept him from gaining entry and everyone inside was fine (if a little rattled). Not that he didn't try - the mesh was stretched and covered in muddy paw prints. I'm so glad that we went overboard and built the coop with the expectation that we might one day have to deal with predators trying to get in, I can't imagine what I might have had to deal with that morning if we hadn't.

Local authorities have been trying to capture this fellow for weeks now, but he (she?) has proven to be a very smart bear (hey, he knows how a door works, for goodness sake), and has so far avoided the traps that they've set. I wonder if they've considered making it look more like a chicken coop. In the meantime, we've reinforced the coop (the trim is now screwed on tight, and the windows have secure latches), and we're being extra careful about walking on the park trails. 

Hopefully he'll make his way to another location soon, either on his own or with the help of conservation officers.


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